The 24 avant garde shorts of the 1920s and ‘30s chosen for this Kino set from the collection of curator Raymond Rohauer span the gamut of movements and styles—dada, surrealism, city symphony, environmental terrarium, direct exposure. The diversity already makes the proposition of plowing through the pair of discs from start to finish not only daunting but perhaps ill-advised. Especially when lurking among the unassailable landmarks of silent avant garde cinema like Joris Ivens’s Regen (an evocative socio-environmental replication of the civic reaction to a rainy downpour on city streets) and Fernand Léger’s Ballet Méchanique (a rhythmic Parisian melange that’s kaleidoscopic in both its prismatic cinematography and its undulating circles of repetition) are at least two (possibly three) works that aim to take the piss out of the concept of non-narrative art cinema. The Hearts of Age, Orson Welles’s fraternal collaboration with William Vance (made when Welles was a mere 19 years of age), is a backyard farce that Welles later admitted to Peter Bogdanovich was made in benign mockery of the Buñuel/Dali collaborations that were inescapable in the day, though it scarcely owes any tangible debt to the style of Un Chien Andalou.
On the other hand, Even—As You and I contains an explicitly irreverent reference to the infamous cloud-bisects-moon/razor-dissects-eye sequence of the surrealist landmark. A trio of directors—Roger Barlow, Harry Hay, and LeRoy Robbins (the latter two instrumental in the gay rights movement decades later)—are stuck for ideas while attempting to enter a short film contest and end up reenacting the surrealist meme after running across an issue of Time magazine in praise of the movement. It sure looks easier to them than coming up with yet another “boy meets girl” scenario, which coyly suggests the queer subtext of art films and, paradoxically, the skewed level of commitment they see in many young avant directors. Downright bitchy (when it’s not prefiguring Three Stooges shorts), Barlow, Hay, and Robbins appear to be arguing that if Buñuel, Dali, and company were really up for a challenge, they’d try crafting a mainstream ditty.
Made four years before Even, Lot in Sodom is another collaboration between James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber and it almost provides the premonitory answer to that challenge, as it’s not only a fairly straightforward (pun not intended) retelling of the Old Testament story (Lot’s valiant attempt to keep one virgin ass untapped, much like Rock Hudson rescuing Dorothy Malone’s snatch from any possible excitement in Written on the Wind) but also a startlingly erotic series of muscular tableau. Like the warden’s dream sequences in Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour, homosexual sensuality goes hand-in-hand with brute tension and the post-coital impulse to destroy, which, considering how this particular story ends, makes God zee biggest bitch of zem all. Or at least in the running for the title with the Hollywood machinery, as portrayed in one of the seminal American avant garde shorts: Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey’s The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, a Gregg Toland-lensed, silouetted-and-backlit fantasia on a starry-eyed man’s doomed stint in La-La Land, which portrays his failure to attract the attention of casting directors in shadowy noir close-ups and his daft resurrection and ascension to heaven as a gauzy Hollywood showstopper. Unlike Welles and Hay, et al’s vaguely smarmy (if still accomplished) burlesques on avant garde, Lot in Sodom and Hollywood Extra straddle the line between irony and impressionism that puts them in good company with many of the other uncontested greats included in this set: Man Ray, Ralph Steiner, and, perhaps above and beyond all else, the two astonishing films by Jean Epstein.
A full listing of the films included is as follows: Le Retour à la Raison, (Man Ray, 1923), Emak-Bakia, (Man Ray, 1926), L’Étoile de Mer (Man Ray, 1928), Les Mystères du Château du Dé (Man Ray, 1929), The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey, 1928) Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926), Brumes D’Automne (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1928), Lot in Sodom (James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, 1933), Rhythmus 21 (Hans Richter, 1921), Vormittagsspuk (Hans Richter, 1928), Anémic cinéma (Marcel Duchamp, 1926), Ballet Mécanique (Fernand Léger, 1924), Symphonie Diagonale (Viking Eggeling, 1924), Le Vampire (Jean Painlevé, 1939) The Hearts of Age (Orson Welles and William Vance, 1934) Überfall (Ernö Metzner, 1928), La Glace à Trois Faces (Jean Epstein, 1927), Le Tempestaire (Jean Epstein, 1947), Romance Sentimentale (Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori V. Alexandrov, 1930), Autumn Fire (Herman G. Weinberg, 1931), Manhatta (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921), La Coquille et le Clergyman (Germaine Dulac, 1926), Regen (Joris Ivens, 1929), H2O (Ralph Steiner, 1929), and Even—As You and I (Roger Barlow, Harry Hay, and LeRoy Robbins, 1937).
Probably about par for the course for Kino and silent archival materials. Though to even say that is to also admit that it's an achievement that such ancient films from such a marginalized strain of filmmaking can still look as clear as they do. Some look better than others, though. Lot in Sodom looks practically pristine when compared to Germain Dulac's La Coquille et le Clergyman, which is plagued by scratches and blotchy, faded blacks. The films from the U.S. have held up better, on the whole, though one of my favorite transfers is of Anémic Cinéma, whose spiral patterns are clear and hypnotizing. The modern musical accompaniments by Sue Harshe, Larry Marotta, Paul Mercer, Donald Sosin, and (dp)3 all sound fine in their stereo mixes, and in the few cases where the film has its own soundtrack (Epstein's Le Tempestaire, for instance), the reproduction is invariably clear.
Nothing really aside from a comprehensive series of notes (text-on-screen within the DVD itself, not in an accompanying booklet) by Elliot Stein, which are usually helpful, offer context and relevant quotes and contemporary criticisms. Commentary tracks would've probably been nice, but otherwise we're not talking about the sort of films that would've inspired a stockade of promotional trinkets.
A comprehensive compendium of proofs to the old adage that the medium of cinema was an entirely different beast before the advent of, as per Norma Desmond, "talk, talk, talk." (Speaking of which, where's Salome?)